- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 24, 2018

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Barry Trotz must have known what was coming.

Four minutes into his postgame press conference, the inevitable topic arose: the Washington Capitals‘ upcoming second-round playoff opponent, the Pittsburgh Penguins.

“I’ll talk about (the Columbus Blue Jackets). I’m not talking about the next opponent,” the Capitals coach said, serious but hardly incensed. He glanced at his watch. “Please let me breathe. We haven’t taken a breath since this things started, so I’m not gonna answer any questions if you want to bring them up.”

Blue Jackets fans were still funneling out of Nationwide Arena into the drizzly night at that moment, after the Capitals won Game 6 of their series 6-3 to knock them out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. While Columbus players faced questions about the looming offseason, it was already time to ask the Capitals about facing the Penguins in the second round, which they’ll do for the third year in a row.

Though Trotz needed a breather, some players did address the questions head-on.

“I said it before, I can’t wait. It’s a huge opportunity for us to take a step forward,” Alex Ovechkin said. “They know how to play. They know how to handle the pressure. It’s going to be a huge series for us.”

The Penguins locked up their spot in the conference semifinal round when they beat the Philadelphia Flyers 8-5 Sunday in their own Game 6. Though the Capitals were the Presidents’ Trophy winners the past two seasons, they fell to the Penguins each year as Pittsburgh marched on to consecutive Stanley Cup victories.

Nicklas Backstrom said it “doesn’t really matter” that the Capitals might be considered underdogs this time around.

“They won two years in a row. Good for them,” Backstrom said. “We’re gonna play second round there … it will be fun.”

The Capitals split the regular season series 2-2 and have gone 9-5-2 against Pittsburgh the last four years, but the regular season has not been the issue. In addition to the 2016 and 2017 playoffs, the Capitals faced the Penguins in the second round in 2009 and lost a seven-game series. Ovechkin, Backstrom, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are some of the handful of players remaining from that year.

The Capitals may be able to carry over some momentum from winning four straight games in the Columbus series. The rivals will play Game 1 at Capital One Arena on Thursday at 7 p.m.

But what will make this year different for Washington? Capitals players insisted all series that they have a confidence that stems from believing in each other and their system — a cliche, even if it’s true. T.J. Oshie went deeper, saying he thinks the Capitals are a better defensive team this time around.

“Defensively, we’re a little more aware of the correct reads. Defensively, we’re a little more responsible,” Oshie said. “(In the past) it seemed like we kinda got away with good players making reads, but at times, Pittsburgh can exploit that when you’re not sharp in your own end, with how they see the ice. I think we’re a little more responsible in our own end, and hopefully that can deter their offense.”

And seeing the Penguins waiting in Round 2 comes as no surprise for the Capitals.

“We’re excited to be in the same situation this year to have another shot at winning the Stanley Cup, and obviously we knew chances were we’d have to go through (the Penguins) at some point,” Holtby said. “We’ve prepared well. I think we’ve used the year to better our team, and our focus now is just on Game 1. For us it doesn’t matter the team we’re playing. We have a goal in mind of winning 16 (games), and that starts with Game 1 of the second round.”

“They’ve ended our season the last two years. If both teams bring their ‘A’ game, I think it’s going to be a long grind of a series,” Oshie said. “That’s the way we want it. We want to take down the best.”

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